HM Treasury officials have told MPs they are intending to fast-forward the publication schedule for the ground-breaking Whole of Government Accounts at the same time as introducing a new IT system to process the task.
One member of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said the move, which would see several months shaved off the current turnaround time for the public-sector-wide number-crunch, was “highly ambitious”.
The details emerged at a session of the watchdog panel this week in which officials were grilled on their progress with speeding up the schedule for the accounting-transparency initiative, which consolidates the audited accounts of more than 6,000 public-sector bodies.
The most recently-published WGA relate to 2016-17 and were published at the end of June this year – well over a year after the 12-month fiscal period the figures relate to. However the Treasury is slowly increasing its turnaround time: the first WAG covered the financial year 2009-10, but was not published until November 2011.
Differences between the accounting year for academy schools and the need to incorporate spending data from local authorities are two particular challenges for speeding up the publication timescale for WAG, committee members were told.
However, officials said they had managed shave 15 days of the publication schedule for the latest WGA figures in comparison to the 2015-16 accounts.
Director general for public spending James Bowler said the Treasury was aiming to publish next year’s WAG – which will relate to 2017-18 public-sector spending – in May next year, and was planning to publish by the end of the following financial year thereafter.
Bowler said he did not want to “over-promise” in relation to the Treasury hitting its May 2019 target, but he said progress in receiving data from academies and councils more quickly had been made.
“Well over 3,000 accounts come in from academies,” he said. “They came in in April, these 2016 accounts. This year we’re getting them in in December, so we can do everything a bit quicker.
“Similarly, we’re moving the timetable forward for local government, the other large set of accounts, from September to July.
“As they get quicker we can do quite a considerable amount of work, which then gets audited by the NAO too, on making sure that we aren’t double-counting things between these accounts.”
Treasury head of financial reporting policy Vicky Rock said the department was currently “in excess of a month ahead” of where it had been for last year’s publication and she said a technology upgrade was part of the plan to speed up turnaround time in the medium term.
“We’re looking to invest in a new IT system as well, because our current one is slightly creaking with the strain of consolidating over 7,000 bodies,” she said.
“We have that investment going alongside, for which I think the 2019-20 WGA will be the first account produced using a different system, using a different internal process.”
PAC member Lee Rowley saluted the department’s drive.
“You’re intending to bring the publication of this forward by three months on a new system,” he said. “That’s highly ambitious!”
Rock accepted the observation, but said speeding up publication of WAG would be done in stages, first from July to May, then from May to March and then “from March to January or December”.
“I agree that is a real ambition, and we need to fundamentally look at the methodology by which we prepare whole of government accounts in order to achieve that,” she said.
Rock said the Treasury was working with the Department for Education which oversees academy schools, and the National Audit Office to improve the timeliness of schools data that feeds into WAG.
She told the committee that changes to the accounting year for schools were not seen as the most constructive way to speed up the delivery of their financial data.